By John Branch
Russian SF—you can take that either as science fiction or speculative fiction—has been no stranger to its uses for the exploration of social, political, and human themes. (This is true enough in other countries that it can be expected everywhere, leaving one to wonder why American SF has so often limited itself to technological and fantasy purposes.) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920) critiqued rational idealism in politics as it turns absolutist; the book influenced George Orwell in the writing of 1984. The Strugatsky brothers, writing from 1959 to 1989, began with romantic, even utopian social visions, grew progressively satiric (The Second Martian Invasion is a Swiftian masterpiece) or doubtful, and finally became rather bleak and gloomy. The great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky devoted two of his seven films (Solaris and Stalker) to SF material—one of them drawing on text from the Strugatskys—that became, in his hands, poetic, meditative, deeply concerned with what can most easily be called (flat as it may sound) the human condition.
Within minutes, the 2011 Russian film Target (directed by Alexander Zeldovich, and co-written with Vladimir Sorokin) takes its place in that tradition, suggesting a future world, a social critique, and a Tolstoyan theme. The location is Moscow, 2020; technology, industry, and globalization have all advanced, with videophones, goggles that reveal characteristics of the subjects in view, and some hair-raising scenes taking place on a Guanjou-to-Paris superhighway dominated by international freight.
The main characters pretty much all count as elites, the men among them wielding great power, wealth, and influence from their positions in government, bureaucracy, or media; notes of corruption and demagoguery are sounded early in the film. As for Tolstoy: the first character we meet, Viktor, head of the Natural Resources Ministry, sounds the theme in what he calls an old saying that he recites to someone interviewing him for a book. It reverses and inverts the opening of Anna Karenina in proposing that “Miserable people are all alike…” Tolstoy wrote that it’s happy families that are all alike; clearly, individualism has supplanted families in Viktor’s world, and what each person wants is happiness in his own way. No one we meet has children, and few of them are even married. Though in our view they should want for nothing, none of these characters is satisfied.
As Target progresses, we find more futurism, more of the critique, and more reminders of Anna Karenina. There’s also a moment that calls to mind Tolstoy’s late rejection of worldliness. And I found reminders of Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker as well. As in Stalker, this film relies on something in a remote location that can bestow a gift on those few capable of reaching it; here, it’s called the target, hence the title. That’s also true of Solaris, and like Solaris, this film leaves us with an ironic image (revealed in both cases via a surprising and majestic aerial pullback shot) of one person among the many characters who has found a means of accommodating that gift.
I was somewhat unsure how to take the film’s most obvious moral note, the good-versus-evil theme explicitly discussed by Viktor as a discovery he made by using the special goggles. But it was decidedly clear that he was taken to be crazy for talking about it. I could see why New York Times critic A. O. Scott, in a recent mention of the film, called it “hallucinatory” and “lavishly and mind-blowingly strange,” though to me the only hallucinatory sequence looked more like Fellini Satyricon, and much of what may have appeared strange to Scott was just Russian to me: physical and emotional violence, a taste for cruelty turned erotic and mostly against the self (Viktor’s wife has twisted desires), and what I took to be a form of spiritual yearning. The icon and the axe, the twin poles of James Billington’s study of Russia, are both present. And Target’s leisurely narrative flow, which occasionally left me wondering where it was going, is true to an important element of unlimited time in the story. A Web page gives away what that’s about, but I won’t.
Target was one of 32 films presented in the annual Film Comment Selects series. It’s an offering of the Film Society of Lincoln Center that gives New York a look at notable recent work from the international festival circuit (Target won attention at Berlin last year), some upcoming or recent domestic releases (Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret was one of these), and some revivals. I wasn’t aware of the series before; now I’m fascinated, and grateful as well. This film, for one, seems otherwise unlikely to be shown in America. If our view of what SF means weren’t so parochial, that might be different. (March 1, 3pm, Walter Reade Theater). Follow John Branch on